Fiction: Old Beginnings (Alone in the Gravel)
OLD BEGINNINGS #2: Maybe posting stalled projects will inspire me to finish ’em. This one is a short that was intended to be something more. Here’s the beginning of this one…
ALONE IN THE GRAVEL
She is building up heat, blankets pinned tightly beneath elbows and toes. She feels that it is magic, the power the bed has to still restless thoughts and so she refuses to replace it with one more appropriate to her adult frame and needs. Nothing more than an old box spring and mattress elevated by a simple iron frame, the twin bed is one of few possessions held over from her youth. In its warm and narrow softness she often takes refuge, hidden away from people, from work, from the demands and connections that selfishly consume her days. The clock radio, tuned to static, hisses awake but she is already there.
She emerges from the warmth of flannel, suffers the cold air gladly, and barefoot makes her way to the bathroom and into the shower. Outside, among the bur oaks and acacias, can be heard the trilled calls of black-capped chickadees who sound comfortable enough despite the early spring snap.
Her left hand spins the hot water valve while her right adds a tickle of cold. Free from the calming influence of the bed and aroused by the heat and patter of falling water, her mind flickers to life with a nonsensical spurt of doggerel –
The house it ate the mouse. The house it ate the mouse.
Everyone sneezed and fell to their knees, the house it ate the mouse!
Always the kids’ songs in the shower, every single morning. These aren’t the correct words to the song. She knows this. In fact, every time they dance a circuit inside her head the words change, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Her morning brain wriggles like a fish on a hook, but the melody, the infernal sing-song melody refuses to loosen its grip.
Before stepping out of the shower she straightens completely, flattening shoulder blades against the white cold tiles behind her, the sharp shiver snapping senses lulled by hot water and steam into sharp focus. Drawing a breath, her first real breath of the day, she stares hard through the filmy translucence of the shower curtain. Somewhat stark and utilitarian, the small space on the other side is far from what her mother would consider a properly appointed bathroom. A faded pink towel, having long ago graduated without distinction from red, offers up the only hint of color. Surfaces and fixtures perfectly suited to a suburban tract home, all whites and chromes, remain in place though decades out of style.
It is into this plainly functional space that she once again introduces her warm body to the morning chill. An uptick adjustment to the thermostat would snap this cycle, but on this day, like most, she prefers the goose bumps. She remembers reading about people who, every January, travel to Jacksonport, Wisconsin to jump into the freezing waters of Lake Michigan. She relates well to this urge to physically experience the extremes, to feel with the flesh in a way that fiercely engages the mind. She finds a certain intoxicating clarity at that moment when the senses are simultaneously shut down and violently switched on, envisioning twin pairs of gloved hands throwing industrial breakers in opposite directions. At this nexus, where utter blackness is briefly illumined by a shower of sparks, she is afforded a tantalizing look inside and beyond herself.
She works the towel briskly between flared elbows, tossing her auburn mop into a frenzy before letting the wet towel slide down her back and onto the floor. She brushes then flosses, happy that her gums don’t bleed like her last boyfriend’s what a fucking mess, that mouth but decides to skip the whitening strips my smile is dazzling enough. She looks down at her phone. Two missed calls and a voicemail from Lia.
Faith? Wake up honey it’s almost noon! I’m just calling to remind you about the potluck. Which is in like an hour. Umm, you’d better go, alright? It’ll be good for you, I promise! Call me later and let me know how it went. Or just come by the bar and tell me all about in person! Ok? WAKE UP!
The neighborhood potluck. Lia has been telling her to go for years. It will be good for you, she says. You need to be more social, she says. You never know where it will lead, hints her friend with an unsubtle nod to Faith’s troubled love life. Never has she felt even slightly compelled. Sorry Lia. Not my scene.
She applies a generous amount of lotion first to face and neck, then shoulders, and finally arms and hands. Her mother forever preached the virtues of keeping up personal appearances. In fact, it seemed her mom was far more interested in Faith’s physical characteristics than her intellect or well-being. Once upon a time a highly coveted trophy wife, the enhancement and display of her femininity her primary objectives, Faith’s mother insisted that her daughter be nothing less and, worse, nothing more. Her mother’s devotion to physical perfection included diets, gym memberships, stacks of shopping channel abdominal exercisers and, worst of all, daily withering assessments of her lone daughter’s physique. Naturally, Faith railed against attempts to mold her and her body into vapid compliance. This resistance led to daily, even hourly, clashes between mother and daughter and eventually to Faith’s exodus. The muscles around her mouth tighten in response to these memories. Noticing this in the mirror, she fills her lungs and closes her eyes. I may not marry rich, but at least I’ll have my dignity.
Faith has never respected her mother’s Faustian bargain. She cannot remember who it was, but a comedian once took aim at women like her mother who trade their lives for perceived power and empty comforts: These women, they don’t do a damned thing! When it’s time to fill out their tax forms, under OCCUPATION they write ‘I screw my husband.’ Not a funny joke by any measure, but it perfectly took the height of her mother. She wipes the excess lotion from under her eyes with a tissue and flicks it toward the toilet. The tiny ball of paper makes no splash as it lands on the floor.
Faith met Lia soon after arriving in Utah. At the time, she was fresh from her mother’s protective shell, yolk still dripping from fingers she’d shoved down her throat in a desperate effort to spark independent thought and action and, she realized years later, to mollify mom. The orange stain around her mouth, highly visible, marked her as an easy target. Lia recognized this and took Faith under her wing, helping her avoid unscrupulous landlords and employers alike. A bartender at Jack’s Steakhouse, Lia had survived early onset D-cups and her stepfather’s advances, taking advantage of both to pay her way through college at Southern Utah University.
It was at Jack’s, a downtown fixture that flourished despite the strip mall steakhouse boom, that Faith met her first Cedar City fling, tile contractor Eli Canetti, who later bragged to a crowded bar about his conquest of what he boastfully termed her tight teen twat. She was twenty then, but had little desire to fashion a pulpit to attack the finer points of his alliterative boast. What wave of madness convinced her to date, let alone touch, let alone fuck blindly on the beige carpet of her still unpacked apartment, the brown-toothed barfly? It must have been the loneliness. It must have been the overarching lack. Why didn’t Lia warn her? Perhaps the perky barkeep considered Eli the obligatory hazing process, the one-man Cedar City welcome wagon. Or maybe, having herself fallen prey to Eli’s advances, she wanted a friend with whom to commiserate. Either way, she still harbors resentment that Lia, with a clear view of the waters, never pointed out such obvious fins.
Naked and not quite dry, she exits the bathroom, five quick strides placing her in the small home’s only bedroom where she forages for appropriate clothing. She steps into her panties, fastens her bra, and ponders briefly whether her stomach is a touch softer today. What the hell, I’ll go. The thought leaps out of nowhere, and by the time she has finished with the zipper of her vintage Pendleton skirt, the steel gray and light blue of its plaid pattern mirroring the range of her eyes, the sudden whim has settled into a knot of apprehension. I’ll go and I’ll have a fine time.
A servomotor in her hip misfires gently, likely the result of condensation, causing her left leg to kick out, toe first and painfully, into the base of her cedar dresser. I have to remember to turn on the bathroom fan, she muses. The unpleasant sensation in her big toe quickly subsides.
In a convex mirror above her dresser she views her distorted figure and assesses her attire; the Pendleton, an indigo cashmere sweater, and black calf high boots. The blues don’t work but she decides against making any changes — it’s her favorite skirt and she doesn’t have another clean sweater. Most would find her face and figure striking were it not for the clinical expression that invariably infects her eyes. You’re really beautiful, Faith commented a departing boyfriend with whom she had enjoyed, then grown bored of, a relationship steeped in great sex but little romance. But you always look at me like I’m something trapped at the bottom of a specimen jar.
She has to admit that the lack of romance was more her fault than Stephen’s. More than adore or even appreciate him, she had watched him, studied him. Even when they had shared a romantic moment, she had caught herself wanting to feel intimate rather than directly experiencing intimacy. More frustratingly, she would catch herself catching herself. Watching the watcher by looking in the mirror.
This was not what Faith wanted to see when she gazed into Stephen’s eyes, or into those of the handful of men she had known. She is keenly aware that their feelings are somehow beyond her, that analysis is a poor substitute for experience. She badly desires intimacy, but has yet to find a bridge to cross the unceasing stream of thoughts, observations and questions that tear her from her goal. Stephen, like the others, had given up trying to reach her. The only thing she had allowed them to connect with was her body. She understands that, in this respect, she is very much like her mother.
The look of intense scrutiny that weighs upon her features and wreaks havoc upon her love life unnerves more than a few. It takes a conscious effort to remove it, especially in social situations. This is why she enjoys spending time with Lia. Despite their differences, the vivacious nature of the coed instills in her a sense of bemusement that borders on genuine happiness. Just watching Lia interact with the world, highly sociable and irrepressible, seems to soften her stare. Lia is her social crutch, her cigarette. She worries that without Lia to hide behind, the rendezvous with strange neighbors will be a painful affair.
The drive to Albertson’s is a short one. On the way she spots Sharpie-scrawled potluck announcements stapled to most every telephone pole and tree. She feels sorry for the trees as they silently endure the sting of metal teeth. Skipping a frenzied hunt for rock star parking, she heads to the rear of the parking lot where empty spaces and shopping carts are found in abundance. Her plan is to grab a deli platter of some sort, a six-pack of pale ale and some soda for the kids. She wonders whether any of her neighbors will join her for a beer. In the century and a half since Brigham Young had fled his mother, his tee totaling evangelical disciples had flourished throughout the state. More for me, she thinks, not remembering the last time she drank as many as three beers, much less six.
There is a man selling insurance on the back of her shopping cart. Ignoring him, she pushes toward the entrance. Her mind wanders to a scene in which she sits at the potluck, happily drunk with a half-dozen empties strewn at her feet. The chill fall weather has given way to perfect summer and her sweater has morphed into a soft cotton tank top. Faith has adopted Lia’s personality, no longer only vicariously enjoying the benefits of an engaging personality. She’s blatantly hitting on everything that moves, and everything that moves is of course tranquilly married to wife and Church and so effectively castrated long ago. Among the eunuchs, her flirtatious laughs and suggestive comments are wasted, but she doesn’t care. It’s like shooting dead fish in a barrel. She is talking loudly and leaning forward, the slight but conscious squeeze of her upper arms enhancing her cleavage. Only the wives notice her efforts, and their icy reproach commingles with the heat of the noonday sun to produce the desired synaptic whiplash.
Smile upon lips and blue eyes blazing she approaches the deli counter. A vaguely Asian deli clerk picks up the scent of her sharpened spirit. Can I help you with anything? he asks with a half-smile and a look that has nothing to do with fruit salad or sandwiches. She can almost hear the clerk’s unspoken thoughts. It makes her giddy to know that she, too, can exert a measure of control.
Despite his best intentions, the clerk can’t do much for her. I really am sorry, but you have to place a Jumbo Party Tray order twenty-four hours in advance. Maybe I can hook you up with . . . a cheese tray? Some foot-long sandwiches?
He really does want to please her. She’s certain of his earnestness, but, plan foiled, she gives up. The daydream high is starting to fade and instead of winking goodbye she turns and heads for the beer. Frustrated and without a backup plan, she resorts to blindly choosing a random sampling of instantly edible items: chips, licorice, bananas, trail mix, bagels, pinwheel cookies, and, in an homage to sixth grade, a case of Capri Sun. She doesn’t so much choose the food as it leaps at her with an arsenal of colorful packaging, improved formulas and discounted prices. She pushes the jumbled pile to the checkout stand. Tabloids vie for her attention. The winner, claiming to have nude photos of Oprah Winfrey on a coke binge, is added to the cart.
Would you like some help out, Ms. Capek? Faith looks at the bagger. Late-teens and square jawed, a distinctly all-American boy. For the first time in her grocery shopping history she replies Sure why not? The buzz may have faded, but her confidence is still elevated enough to allow her to flirt with high school students.
As the bags are unloaded into the back of her truck, she notices the young man’s forearms as they bulge and flex against the weight of her groceries. Admiring the purity of his strength, she senses that his body has yet to be contaminated by adulthood. Nostalgia smashes her about the head delivering with its blows memories of people and experiences she’d intensely craved but had been denied. Her mother’s words, spoken but once, are resurrected with such force that she mouths them silently You’ll not share your body with a man until I will it. The high school experience enjoyed by her classmates was something she could only watch, another topic added to her studies.
Now, admiring the bag boy’s backside and free to share whatever with whomever, Faith realizes for the first time that in her struggle for liberation she has flipped her mother’s edict on its back. Yet, instead of shredding its belly and becoming the self-actualized woman she strives to be, she has merely switched head for tail, offering her pussy but denying her mind. A song lyric pops into her head: Free your mind and your ass will follow. She reverses it. When will my mind follow?
The bananas slip loose, but one catches the edge of the tailgate and saves the rest. He offers an apology, gathers the bunch and returns them to the bag.
So, do you have a girlfriend?
The direct question catches man-boy off guard. Saying nothing, he shakes his head and looks only briefly in her direction. His eyes flit about, seeking new targets beyond, around, and above her. He won’t look at her. He’s very suddenly very clearly very nervous.
That’s a shame. You’re a good looking guy in a town full of zombies. You should find someone and get the hell out of here. No, flip that. Get the hell out of here and find someone. That’s probably the best way to go.
She is aware that not only do her words barely register with the bag boy, they have almost nothing to do with him. By giving voice to her thoughts, she is creating memories, lessons, a map for her future self. Left unspoken, thoughts quickly fade and are forgotten.
Keychain slips from pocket to hand and she tugs the driver’s side door open. The boy has vanished without a reply. Her wrist twists the truck into action and she heads for the street. Out the windshield a pale denim sky pairs with high white cirrus clouds, the tiny ice crystals forming the softest halo around the sun. It sure is a beautiful day.
The potluck is at a community park less than a mile from her house. She parks and heads for the largest knot of people, which predictably enough is gathered near the barbecue pits. Recognizing nary a soul, she approaches a table already cluttered with paper plates, bottled water and barbecue fixings. Looks like you brought food for a preschool field trip jokes a middle-aged woman who helps clear space for the kiddy snacks. Faith has a hard time tearing her eyes away from the woman’s sweater. Painfully yellow, it is home to an embroidered lime green and pink parrot. The beak, which extends to the top of a padded shoulder, clutches an upside down American flag that unfurls down the woman’s back. Beneath the bird are the inexplicable words MOM’S KNOW BEST. Faith is torn between laughing, crying, asking the woman where the hell she found the garish thing, and immediately returning home. Instead, she smiles politely, hoists a beer and excuses herself.
For all the sun, it’s a rather cool day and she finds herself wishing she had brought a jacket. Gathered nearby is a small cluster of men and women, two of whom may live on her block. She can’t be sure. She wants to walk over and introduce herself. She wants to be sociable, to be normal. But, bringing herself to do or be any of these things is, at present, beyond her. Maybe next time, she thinks, somewhat hopefully. At least I came.
She selects a perch on top of a picnic table away from the others. Facing the playground, an assortment of colorful PVC tubes and slides, she idly watches the children of her would-be peers. She picks out the loner, a small boy who is maybe two years old. He is sitting at the top of a shallow set of concrete steps that lead into the gravel-filled play area, clutching a globe-sized ball tightly to his chest. Blue with red stripes, the ball is clearly the child’s safety blanket. Not much more than a tuft of blond hair in overalls, the child seems content watching others play while kicking at the small rocks near his feet. She likes watching kids like this. They restore her faith in humanity.
The rest, she thinks, are much like their parents. In a blink, they’ll graduate from sand box to barbecue pit, from swing sets to corporate ladders. In the meantime, they’ll be tutored in prejudice, jealousy, greed, hubris, and other assorted human failings until they’re old enough to pedal bicycles across the desert, following the ghost of Joseph Smith to a sadly predictable end.
As if to affirm her dour assessment, an older boy approaches her favorite and tears the ball from his hands. There is no exchange, the bully simply takes what he wants and walks away. The younger child, his contentment shattered, stands alone in the gravel, sobbing. There is no response from the parents, as politics and gossip prove too engrossing. What assholes. Faith leaves her post and retrieves the ball which, powered by a terrific boot from the young tough, has landed in a well-manicured lawn across the street. Faith hands it to the still snuffling little boy. He looks up and nods a thanks. She feels happy to have helped a kindred spirit.
But he’s the only one. Not one of her peers noticed. Not one of them cared. Not one is worth talking to. The tailings of the beer are exceedingly bitter as she finishes the bottle.
I’m going to outlast all of you.
This fact depresses her, and she knows it has everything to do with her misanthropic thoughts. Back on the park bench with knees tucked to her chest, she builds heat against the cold. She closes her eyes. She is suddenly and unbelievably tired.